First Time Watch: Casualties of War (1989)

By Christian DiMartino

In the pantheon of great war movies, you probably hear the same titles thrown around in a discussion. Saving Private Ryan, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, The Thin Red Line, Born on the Fourth of July, etc. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War, and frankly the movie was probably a casualty of coming out the same year as Born on the Fourth of July (admittedly a better film about the Vietnam War) and Glory. People have also often just neglected to give De Palma the time of day. Well, in the case of Casualties of War, it’s a film that is not only deserving of discussion, but also worthy of your time.

There are a slew of movies about the Vietnam War, and could you really blame Hollywood for that? It’s a fascinating subject that has been analyzed from different angles. The bulk of which really focus on, of course, the horrors of war and the lasting impact it leaves on soldiers. Some throw us smack dab in the middle of the action, like the weaker final half of Full Metal Jacket (sorry, I guess). Others, like the Hal Ashby masterpiece, Coming Home, focus on how what happens in the aftermath, and how you may leave the war, but the war doesn’t always leave you (that movie, notably, doesn’t feature a single action sequence).

I didn’t really know what I was getting into with Casualties of War. I recalled the first time I experienced Born on the Fourth of July, in which the assumption was that Tom Cruise was just going to be in combat the whole time. Couldn’t be further from the truth, and to this day, it might be my favorite of the pack. That film, like many, is about the lasting impact and the horrors. Casualties of War is also about that, but it’s a different beast. In this case, it’s not just about the horrors of war and the enemy, but it’s about the enemy within ourselves. It’s a film in which the enemy isn’t the opposing team, but the enemy is the few rotten eggs who let the power get to their heads.

There were of course many casualties in the Vietnam War. This film focuses on the casualties who met their fate at the hand of American soldiers, but also how the American soldiers were casualties of their own undoing. Knowing De Palma and how he usually has something bigger on his mind, maybe I should’ve seen this coming. The film I got though was disturbing and unsettling, but undeniably powerful, with two absolutely remarkable performances at the center of it. The Academy really missed the boat on this one.

Michael J. Fox, who was riding off the high of Back to the Future and Family Ties, really did a splendid job of not letting himself get typecast. If you’ll recall, he also did a coked-out Wall Street movie called Bright Lights, Big City, which was also a major swing for him. I love the guy, but gotta say, he gives perhaps his best performance here as Eriksson, who we see all of this horror through the eyes of. Eriksson, smack dab in the middle of ‘Nam, is a part of a squad that includes the hot-headed leader Meserve (Sean Penn), and his faithful followers Clark (Don Harvey), Diaz (John Leguizamo) and Hatcher (John C. Reilly, in his first role). Eriksson is a team player, but we sense early on that he is a little quieter and more reserved than his fellow mates, and therefore more sensitive. Which of course leads to douchey mockery from his gang.

He’s also, ultimately, perhaps the only member of the group, besides Meserve, who is willing to think for himself. Meserve is about as toxic as a personality can get. Penn, in one of his finest performances, is so slimy because he’s a really confident person in the way he boasts about his confidence, and I suppose that confidence rubs off on the others. While in the middle of the jungle, Meserve decides to take a Vietnamese woman captive. Eriksson, naturally, doesn’t deem this necessary. Things get worse though when Meserve and the gang decide that they’re all going to rape her.

Eriksson tries to reason with them and convince them it’s wrong. He almost gets through to Diaz, but ultimately each of them decide to go through with it. Eriksson refuses, which leads the group to taunt him and accuse him of homosexuality. Eriksson does whatever he can to let the prisoner free, much to the group’s dismay. At every turn though, Eriksson feels outranked by Meserve, and he’s forced to either carry on and ignore their actions or stand up for himself and his morals and put a stop to them.

This film left me disturbed, but utterly fascinated. It is apparently based on a true story, and I unfortunately believe it. Because there have been a number of movies about police officers that perform vile acts (I’m admittedly not in the ACAB hive, but some cops are bad), but I’m not sure if I’ve seen a movie about soldiers committing these despicable, unforgivable crimes. Usually in these movies, there’s that one character who seems a little off the rails and makes multiple mistakes. Casualties of War is about a gang of them, with one additional, sole member being the voice of reason.

This is a film about the war, but it’s more of a movie about man, and the difference between good and evil. We’re not given any backstories on these characters, but De Palma wisely leaves us to fill in the blanks. Has Meserve, who has probably been serving a little while, seen and done enough to be driven to this point, or did he always have this side of him just waiting in the shadows? He’s a fascinating character, and Penn is so convincing in this film that it’s a little scary.

I’m not sure where Casualties of War ranks in the discussion of great war films, but it belongs in the conversation. De Palma’s direction, as it is in his best work, is superb. The way in which the cinematography matches his keen eye, and the score from Ennio Morricone, make this a riveting experience. There’s not much in the way of action sequences here, but when there is, they’re dynamite. As are the performances, with Fox playing the embodiment of good here in what is probably his finest performance. I’m not completely sure how I feel about the ending, but the journey getting to it is a powerful, disturbing, and unforgettable one.

One response to “First Time Watch: Casualties of War (1989)”

  1. I was probably too young when I saw this movie (I just realized how often that’s true of 80s movies) because the fear of being trapped away from civilization with bad people who want to do bad stuff and there’s not a lot I can do about it really stuck with me

    Liked by 1 person

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